Twitter Places puts location services on the map

Location services are the latest social media fad, allowing users with smartphones to "check in" to local businesses for points and fun. Twitter jumped on board location services Monday, launching Twitter Places.

Location services are fun, but they feel faddish and insubstantial. Even though I'm a regular user of one location service, Foursquare, I find myself unable to answer the simple question: "What's the point?"

Twitter Places is a new tool for telling your friends when you're visiting a particular business or location. When you send a tweet with the new feature activated, Twitter provides you with a list of local businesses, and you can select one before you send. If you're at the local Starbucks, or a hot restaurant, Places provides an easy way to let your Twitter friends know.

Services like Foursquare and Gowalla have offered similar services for a while now -- and, indeed, the new Twitter Places integrates with those two services. Yelp recently launched its own check-in feature.

I'm most familiar with Foursquare. Here's how that works: When I get to a location, I take out my iPhone, and start up the Foursquare app, which presents me with a list of nearby locations. I find the one I'm at, and tap its name. I then see a "Check In" button, which I tap, and Foursquare records me at that location. It optionally sends an update to Twitter and Facebook.

What's the point?

Foursquare gives you points for checking in, and for frequent check-ins. If you check into one place more often than anyone else, you're named "Mayor" of that location. As you collect points, you unlock "badges." And, like other social networks, Foursquare lets you designate other users as friends, and you can use Foursquare to see where your friends are checking in.

What's the point of all these points and mayorships and badges?

Well, I've had fun meeting one or two people through Foursquare; I made a point to introduce myself when I noticed they visited the same places as I do.

Blogger Robert Scoble writes about one practical use he's found for Foursquare. Foursquare lets users leave "tips," short message describing things to do at a particular location. He describes how he found himself in Paris with an afternoon free recently, so he pulled out Foursquare, checked out nearby tips, and discovered a great bakery right around the corner.

Here are a list of tips near my home office:

Foursquare lets users leave tips of nearby things to do

Notice that the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System is using Foursquare to let people know about local public transit stops. That's smart. Also, lower down, The Tubs is a place you can rent a hot tub or Jacuzzi by the hour; the tip for that place made me smile.

Businesses can keep an eye on location services to get a better handle on who their regular customers are, and some companies, like Starbucks, are already starting to offer discounts to Foursquare mayors. (Also, Starbucks launched free in-store Wi-Fi Monday.)

Just a fad?

But mainly there is no point to location services. They're mindless games, mildly satisfying in the way that Minesweeper or Solitaire are satisfying.

The rewards of location services are thin, at least so far. Pretty soon, the novelty will fade, and the location services will fade too -- unless they can find some way of providing practical value.

It's possible that I'm simply not the right demographic for location services. These could be services with maximum appeal for people in their teens and 20s, with lots of free time, lots of friends who live right near them, and the habit of going out clubbing Friday and Saturday nights. For a person like that, it would be great to pull out their smartphone and get an update on the location of their friends and the nearest hot bars.

I'm not in that demographic, though; I'm a middle-aged reclusive workaholic. And it's hard to see other adults using location services; is a busy parent shuttling kids from soccer practice to playdates going to have the inclination to use location services? And what would they use the services for if they did?

I have a feeling that, as with Twitter, the value of location-services may emerge as large numbers of people play with them. Twitter started out as exclusively SMS-based, designed for small groups of people who already knew each other in real life. But it gained popularity on the Web and with smartphone applications, as a global conversation channel.

Similarly, location-based services may just turn out to be useful in ways that we aren't thinking about right now.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. Friend him on Facebook.

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